Saudi Arabia’s NEOM proposes a utopian future, but at what cost?

By Kit Roberts

OCTOBER 24, 2017, during a 3 day conference in Riyadh, saw the announcement of what was described as “the most ambitious project in the world.”

At the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman took to the stage to outline the plans to gathered world leaders, businesses, and journalists.

NEOM, outlined the prince, is a city planned to be founded on the north western border of Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea coast, also spilling over the border into Jordan and Egypt.

The $500 billion city will run on entirely renewable energy, preserving the untouched nature which is to be found on the site of its construction.

In his book ‘MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammad bin Salman’*, New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard described the young prince reaching into his pocket and producing two phones, an old “dumb” phone, and iPhone, describing how NEOM would be to old cities as the iPhone was to the old model.

The name of the city comes from “neo” – Latin for “new” – with the M added at the end standing for the Arabic word “mustaqbal” – meaning “future”. 

MBS’ vision for the city was a technological paradise featuring flying cars and robotic butlers in which citizens could enjoy the ease of living that technology offered.

The Prince since began floating ideas of extensive facial recognition and tracking drones to keep tabs on the population every hour of every day.

In his book on the Prince, Ben Hubbard documented how the city is envisioned as “a chance to design a better way of life, with a blueprint for sustainable living,” even going so far as to describe the city as “a roadmap for the future of civilisation.”

More recently, a social media campaign has been further pushing the vision for the new city, with videos showing off pristine coral reefs and describing the plans for harnessing the renewable energy available on the site.

The enormously ambitious project forms part of a broader movement in Saudi Arabia away from its overwhelming reliance on state-controlled oil company Saudi ARAMCO for the majority of revenue raised in the kingdom.

NEOM is intended to create opportunities for tourism, green energy, as well as a hub for developing new technology.

But the project has already met with some alarming developments.

In 2020 the Huwaiti Bedouin tribe, who have lived nomadically across the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian border for hundreds of years, complained that they were being threatened with eviction.

A representative from the tribe posted videos on YouTube claiming that Saudi security forces were attempting to push them from the homes in which the tribe had settled to make way for the new city. 

The Huwaitis are one of the tribes who fought alongside TE Lawrence in the Arab Revolt of 1917.

Abdul Rahim Al-Huwaiti featured in the videos, describing how security forces had threatened to remove the group from the area ahead of the construction of the new city.

After vowing to defy the eviction order, Al-Huwaiti was subsequently killed by Saudi security forces who claimed that he had attacked them and they had been forced to retaliate.

But human rights lawyer Alya Abutayah Al-Huwaiti contested the claims, telling the BBC journalist Frank Gardner in 2020: “They are not against the building of Neom, they just don’t want to be forcibly evicted from a land their families have lived in for generations.” 

Al-huwaiti herself also claimed that she had been the target of a threatening phone call after raising awareness of the controversy around the development.

She also claimed that eight members of the Huwaiti tribe have been arrested in connection with their efforts to approve the city.

Faith in MBS’ vision for the future was shaken to its core after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, which left many international investors with deep doubts.

The years since MBS’ rise to become the heir apparent and de facto ruler of the Kingdom have seen a series of moves to push forward a vision of Saudi Arabia which is divorced from its ultra-conservative reputation.

NEOM forms a huge part of this, being a flagship project to modernise the Kingdom, as well as diversifying its economy.

But the huge cost of the project, as well as the obstacles it has already run into, are already making it increasingly difficult to garner support and investment to meet the intended 2025 target for opening the first sites.

The location of the city also raises questions about the intentions of MBS for the future of the Kingdom in relation to its northern neighbours.

A fluid border with Jordan and Egypt is already part of the plans for the site, but the proximity to Israel particularly in the wake of the normalisation of relations between the two countries has also raised questions about the potential for Israeli involvement in the future.

The precise intentions for NEOM remain unclear. What is clear however, is that this forms a huge part of the Crown Prince’s plans how Saudi Arabia will develop under his rule when he inherits the crown from his father.

MBS has already made gains amongst the younger population in Saudi Arabia, ensuring that he is seen as the person who is passing important reforms such as women being allowed to drive.

Such reforms also assert dominance over the conservative clerics, who have historically commanded huge political influence in the Kingdom.

Since its announcement four years ago, NEOM has become a central part of Saudi Arabia’s future. It is a project that simply cannot be allowed to fail.

What this means for the future of the country, and the people who live where the city will be, remains to be seen.

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in the UK and NEOM were contacted for comment.

*Credit: Ben Hubbard, ‘MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammad bin Salmon’ (London: Williams Collins, 2020, pp 168-169)

Featured Image: Pixabay

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